Richard Wiseman

6th July 2012 at 01:00
Mentors in maths and physics gave the psychologist the cues he needed to think creatively

The question in the exam was: "What is the pressure on a tent when it rains?" That was it. At sixth-form college I studied Nuffield A-level physics along with chemistry and maths and that was the exam question. You had to be a free thinker. You had to know your stuff and be able to apply it. It wasn't just about plugging numbers into a formula, and my physics teacher John Herod was very much about that. He wanted you to understand - it was about deep understanding and concepts, rather than memorising the nuts and bolts.

The exam was unique and for me it was exciting because you didn't know what was going to come up. Now it's the exact opposite, because the students are the customers and they want to know what's in the exam. The approach seems very much to be the lecturer tells you what to think and you tell it back and if that process goes well you get a good grade. Instead, students should be encouraged to give the lecturer's opinions the hardest possible time and come up with a few of their own as well.

Mr Herod's lessons felt like an exploration, were well-paced and he understood what motivated people. He was in his late thirties and quite a funny man. At that time boys did physics and girls did not, but he was very encouraging of the two girls in the class, one of whom is a long-term friend of mine and who, I know, actually went on to be an electrical engineer.

I used to look forward to physics and pretty much everyone I've spoken to since loathed it. The skills I learned in Mr Herod's class have served me well. In my line of work, you have got to be able to think creatively and critically.

In his class, I think I was probably quite loud actually - I certainly wasn't shy about coming forward with the answers. I hope I wasn't a pain in the backside, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised if he thought I was.

In his report about me he wrote: "Richard has a sharp but butterfly mind." I was upset he used "but" instead of "and". I do tend to bounce from one thing to another, though. I have a low boredom threshold.

Mr Turner was my maths teacher. He was a lot older than Mr Herod, in his fifties or sixties. He said something that has really stuck with me. When we were revising for our exams, he warned us that we might get overwhelmed. He told us just to make a list and slowly work our way through it to stop ourselves panicking.

It was ridiculously simple advice, but at the time it just felt like such a revelation and I still do it today. When it feels like there is too much going on, I slowly cross things off a list one by one.

I don't think I quite knew what I was getting myself into when I opted to study psychology at university - you couldn't study it at A level at that time. I remember thinking, the way lots of kids do, that psychology was about body language and forensic psychology and people lying on couches talking about their dreams.

Most people going into psychology were from an arts background, but it is quite statistical, so coming from a science background was a big bonus. But there was also a lot of essay writing and I remember struggling in first year to string a sentence together. Still, in the end, opting to study psychology was probably the best decision I ever made.

Richard Wiseman's latest book, Rip It Up: the radically new approach to changing your life, was released yesterday. - and he is taking part in the British Science Festival in Aberdeen in September. He was talking to Emma Seith


Born: Luton, 1966

Education: William Austin Junior School, Luton; Icknield High, Luton; Luton Sixth Form College; University College London; University of Edinburgh

Career: lecturer, then professor at University of Hertfordshire, School of Psychology.

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